Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Bible and Human Authority, Part 3: The Great Chain of Being

In Parts 1 and 2 we examined what the Bible actually teaches about human authority. God in the Old Testament simply does not appear to be interested in setting up human authority structures, but rather prefers to raise up individual, Spirit-led leaders who act in God’s authority, not as part of a top-down chain of command. And though the New Testament teaches submission to earthly institutions of human authority, its focus is on the new kingdom of God, in which hierarchies of human authority are eliminated in favor of equal brother-sister relationships.

So where did the idea come from, that there is top-down chain of command from God, both in earthly and in spiritual relationships, with human authority structures in every area of life?

Plato (429-347 BC) was possibly the greatest of the Greek philosophers. He conceived of the nature of reality to consist first of ideal “Forms,” and then objects/beings which were types of each ideal. Plato conceived of the Form of Absolute Good as the ultimate, universal object of human desire, and this Idea of the Good became synonymous with God in the writings of his student, Aristotle. In order to be the ultimate Good, God would, in Absolute generosity, also give existence to every other possible good thing. Aristotle then arranged all creatures into a graded scale according to how closely they approached “perfection.” The Neo-Platonists, a group of Greek philosophers in the 3rd-5th centuries AD, who expanded Plato and Aristotle’s ideas, particularly in terms of religion and spirituality, developed this notion further. Macrobius, a Neo-Platonist writing in the early fifth century AD, wrote:

“[T]he attentive observer will discover a connection of parts, from the Supreme God down to the last dregs of things, mutually linked together and without a break. And this is Homer’s golden chain, which God, he says, bade hang down from heaven to earth.” (Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, Harper & Brothers (1936) p. 63.)

This idea of a graded, hierarchical creation came to be known as the “Great Chain of Being.” Alan Myatt, in his paper “On the Compatibility of Ontological Equality, Hierarchy and Functional Distinctions,” writes:

“As Greek philosophical notions were appropriated by early Christian apologists in their defense of the faith, it [the idea of the Great Chain of Being] eventually became entwined with the theology of the church and set the agenda for its theory of society. . . In the Middle Ages, this concept translated into the division of society into ‘Three Estates,’ each stratified according to the Chain of Being. The first estate consisted of church officials beginning with the pope. . . The second estate included the ruling classes of kings, nobility and knights, while the peasants and merchants made up the third estate. Any violation of the established authority within each estate was seen as a threat to the creation order, and subversive to the state and to the stability of Christian culture. Any attempt to leave one’s place in the chain was therefore an act of rebellion. It is critical to note that in the family, there was a hierarchical ordering of husband, wife, children and servants. Each was subordinate to the previous due to their immutable places in the Chain of Being.”

By Elizabethan times (1500s), the Chain of Being had become “one of those accepted commonplaces, more often hinted at or taken for granted than set forth.” (Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, Vintage Books, page 26.) The Elizabethan philosophers and theologians envisioned not just a hierarchical gradation of beings, but a “primacy” within each specific class of beings, such as “the dolphin among fishes, the eagle among birds, the lion among beasts, the emperor among men.” Ibid, p. 29-30. This conception of hierarchy among the animals is never hinted at in the biblical creation story— but it became part of Christian/Western thought through the infusion of pagan philosophy. Even now we still think of the lion as “the king of beasts.”

Another “commonplace” assumption of Elizabethan times was that “the order in the state duplicates the order of the macrocosm.” Ibid, p. 88. The Homily of Obedience written in 1547 stated,

“In the earth God has assigned kings, princes with other governors under them, all in good and necessary order. The water above is kept and raineth down in due time and season. The sun, moon, stars, rainbow, thunder, lightening, clouds, and all birds of the air do keep their order.” Ibid, p. 88.

Thus, building upon Greek pagan thought, the idea of a hierarchical order of authority in every strata of human relations, based upon the order of creation, became infused with Christianity to the point where no one even thought to question it. This legacy became part of our Western conception of the universe, which still exists today. Alan Myatt notes that a hierarchical understanding of the universe is the tendency in eastern systems of thought as well, “so universal in human society that it could be said to be the default mode of human existence.” He adds that in our churches today, “Traditional hierarchical biblical interpretation has been filtered through the lens of a cultural vision of human relations compromised by a pagan worldview [which] effectively blinded it to the egalitarian implications of the biblical text.” In other words, hierarchical thinking is so natural for humans, and so much a part of our Western mentality, that we have been reading it back into the biblical texts ever since the end of the Age of the Apostles.

With regards, then, to Jesus’ submission to the Father as a justification for hierarchy in human relationships (and particularly in marriage)— it seems apparent that the notion of the Trinity as a hierarchy of authority between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a continuation of this notion of the Great Chain of Being into the Godhead Itself. But is this the way the Bible actually describes the submission of the Son to the Father? Or to put it another way, is the submission of the Son to the authority of the Father shown by the Bible to be an eternal, divine absolute? Or was the submission of the Son to the Father a temporary matter, tied to the Son’s taking on of human nature and walking on earth as an example of human obedience? Is Jesus’ submission to the Father’s authority human and temporal, or divine and eternal?

Philippians 2:6-9 says that Jesus was “in the form of God, [and] thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” And Hebrews 2:9 says, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.”

These verses show that Jesus laid down His complete equality with the Father in order to take on human nature and become an obedient servant. There is no indication that Jesus was subject to the Father, or under the Father’s authority, prior to this event, or that it continued after He had “tasted death” and then been “crowned with glory and honor.” It was only for a little while, during His time on earth, that He was made “ a little lower than the angels,” which according to Hebrews 2:6-7 is the nature of humanity. The state of the Son now, according to Phil. 2:9, is that “God hath highly exalted him and given him a name which is above every name.” There is no indication that a state of authority and subordination continues to exist at the present time between the Father and the Son.

In fact, the very idea of authority and subordination within the Godhead in Its eternal divinity is actually incoherent. The triune God is One—three Persons, distinguishable but not divisible, Who in eternity are completely of one Will. Authority makes no sense unless there is a need for obedience; and there can be no need for obedience when there is no difference in wills. The Father did not want to send the Son to earth more than the Son wanted to go. The only time during which the wills of the Father and the Son could diverge, was when the human needs and desires of the incarnated, human Christ conflicted with His divine purpose. This is why Hebrews 5:8 says He “learned obedience by the things which he suffered.” Obedience was something the Son needed to learn on earth, because it could not have had any existence or meaning in the divine eternity of the Trinity, where there was nothing the Son wanted that the Father and the Spirit did not also want.

Even during Jesus’ time on earth we see incidents where Their divine mutuality shows. When soldiers come to arrest Jesus in Matthew 26:53, Jesus says, “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently [at once] give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be [that the Christ must die]?” Jesus was confident that the Father would do whatever Jesus wanted— but Jesus Himself was choosing to do what needed to be done.

In John 5:19, Jesus explains, “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do.” He does not say that the Son does what the Father tells Him to do, but what He sees the Father doing. The Son is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) and “the express image of his person” (Heb. 1:3). This is an aspect of the divine mystery of the Trinity, and because of this, it isn’t really a good idea to try to compare human relationships, such as husbands and wives, to the interrelationships of the infinite Godhead. In any event, this comparison seems largely to be done as a justification of male authority over the female in marriage, rather than because the Bible itself makes any such comparison.

What, then can we say about 1 Cor 11:3: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God”? As I have explained in detail elsewhere, the context surrounding 1 Corinthians 11:3 leads to understanding the word “head” in that verse as meaning “origin” or “source.” And what the passage actually says is that God is the “head” of “Christ,” not of “the Son.” “Christ means “the Anointed One/Messiah,” and refers specifically to the Son in His relations to humanity. He is the “Lamb, slain from the Foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8), which means that since the Creation Jesus has, first by anticipation and then by actuality, been the “Christ.” “God is the head [origin] of Christ” because it was from God that Christ came into the world. “Christ is the head [origin] of man” because, according to 1 Cor. 8:6 and Col 1:15, all things, including man, were created by and through Christ. “Man is the head [origin] of woman” because the first woman was taken out of the man’s side; but Paul goes on to say that even as the woman came from the man (at creation), so man comes from woman (in childbirth), and all things come from God (1 Cor. 11:12). This passage is not setting up a hierarchy: God-Christ-man-woman— because it is not stated in that order; instead, it is given in chronological order according to when each came into the world: the man, created by and through Christ; then the woman, taken out of the man; then the Christ, sent by God.

The last passage to address is 1 Cor. 15:28, the main passage used to support the idea that the Son is meant to be eternally, divinely under the authority of the Father: “And when all things shall be subdued to him [the Christ], then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” The context of this passage is the final redemption of the creation and the resurrection of the dead. Christ, being the first resurrected, is called the “firstfruits” of the resurrection (verse 20). Verse 21 points out that the verse is specifically about Christ as “man,” undoing the death that came through the first man, Adam, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (verse 22). Verse 24 says that the end will be consummated when Christ “delivers up the kingdom to God, even the Father.” Verses 26 and 27 speak of how “all things” (the entire creation) shall be put under Christ’s feet, with death the last enemy to be conquered. This shows a dynamic movement of authority between the Father and Jesus as the Christ, so that it is Christ, being Himself part of the creation in His humanity, who is in authority over the creation at this present time. The Father is not under Christ’s authority (“he is excepted, which did put all things under him”), but neither is the Father in authority over the creation: He has given that to Christ. In the end, then, Christ, now spoken of as “the Son” shall “also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him.” If anything, this speaks against the idea of eternal, divine subordination of the Son, for if there is going to come a time when the Son becomes subject to the Father, the fact is that He is not subject now, or there would be no point of speaking of a future time.

Greek scholar Philip Payne, in his book Man and Woman, One in Christ, points out that a distinction is being made between “God the Father" in verse 24, and “God” (“the God” in the original language, with definite article “the”) in verse 28. Verse 24 speaks of Christ as Man, Himself partaking of the nature of created things, Who will as the Ruler of the creation, give it up to the Father at the end. Verse 28 then says that as the Son, he will be subjected (or possibly, "subject Himself”) to the Father, that “the God” will be “all in all.” As Payne says, “Accordingly, 1 Cor 15:28 . . . may be better translated, ‘so that the Godhead may be all in all.’” The form of future tense used for “will be subject” does not, according to Payne, indicate that the thing being done “will be the condition forever thereafter.” (Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, Zondervan (2009), p. 134-135.) If it did, it would contradict Ephesians 1:21, which says that God has placed Christ above all rule and power and “every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in the one to come.” (Emphasis added.) Rather, this passage may be seen as a one-time event at the end of this creation, that lays to rest the issue of authority as it exists in this creation, by placing it all under the Christ as Man (a Creature of this creation)— and then Jesus as the Son, with all the rule and authority He has as Christ-Man, placed under the Father, that the divine Godhead (Father, Son and Spirit) may be “all in all.”

In other words, the New Testament shows God the Father and God the Son sharing authority over the creation, so that it moves back and forth between them depending on times and circumstances. Authority of the Father over the Son only makes sense within the human nature of the Son, not in His divine eternity with the Father and the Spirit. We cannot, then, use the submission of the Son to the Father at certain times and events as an indication that the nature of the Godhead is a divine hierarchy. In fact, if we view the Trinity as a permanent hierarchy within Its divine essence, then we must view the nature of the Father as essentially different from that of the Son, in that the Father is eternally suited to rule the Son and the Son is eternally suited to be ruled by the Father. However, for the Persons of the Trinity to be different in essence, contradicts the very nature of the Trinity, rendering them separate gods instead of One God.

To sum up, then: The Bible does not actually teach that God has a divine plan for authority such that there is a hierarchically ordered chain of command in every area of life, extending top-down from a hierarchical Trinity. The Bible teaches that in the New Creation, equality of status is the plan of God, with servanthood replacing authority, and those who lead, leading by example rather than by right. Jesus was quite accurate when He said that hierarchies of authority and rule were of the “Gentiles” in Matthew 20:25, because the concept known as the “Great Chain of Being” was formed in Greek thought and was never taught by our Savior. We are Gentiles also, and we have taken hierarchy for granted, missing the impact of Christ’s words that it is to be “not so among you,” for too long.


Anonymous said...

Hear hear!

Don Johnson

Gran said...

Great post! Looking forward to your next one.

Sierra said...

This was absolutely amazing. You have given me much to think about, as I am writing about Neo-Platonism in my academic work right now.

Kristen said...

Thanks, Sierra! I'm so glad you liked it! A revised form of this series will soon become a No Longer Quivering FAQ for the Take Heart Project.

Anonymous said...

I planned to get a lot more done this afternoon but got caught up reading various posts of yours (the 1 Timothy 2:11-15 series and this one had me particularly engrossed!) - I know this is an old oe, but I had to comment.

Thank you so much for all of the hard work you've put into processing and then articulating this; the Trinity and authority in the Bible are two topics I'd planned to look into this year, and I suspect you've just saved me a lot of time!

Again, THANK YOU. What I've read today has been a huge blessing to me, and I'm thankful to God for leading me here.

Kristen said...

Wow, thanks, Belle! I'm glad you liked the posts!